Introduction to Apocalypticism and Millennialism

Relevant Terms

Millenarianism - "a particular type of salvationism which always pictures salvation as collective, terrestrial, imminent, total, and miraculous" (Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium).

Chiliasm - same meaning as millenarianism;  however, while millenarianism stems from the Latin word mille (a thousand), chiliasm is derived from the Greek word for one thousand, chilioi.

Apocalypticism - a pattern of thought or world view dominated by the kinds of ideas and motifs found in apocalypses. It is usually very dualistic (good vs. bad, light vs dark, etc.) and encompasses the typical elements of an apocalypse as defined in Mitchell Reddish's Apocalyptic Literature.

Competing Theories Regarding the Year 1000 AD

Over time, historians have held competing theories as to the social and religious trends that characterized the period around the year 1000 AD. While many 18th and 19th century historians argued that the year 1000 was enveloped in a wave of millenarianistic thought, current historians have suggested that these earlier historians are guilty of greatly romanticizing these "Terrors" which supposedly foretold of the end of the world.

Evidence of a large-scale movement around the turn of the century is scarce. However, this does not mean that the year 1000 came and went without so much as a whimper. In fact, 1000 AD was not the only year in that period which saw an increase in millenarian thought. While some thought the thousand year reign of Christ would come in 1000 AD (a thousand years after Jesus' birth), others thought it would arrive in 1033 (a thousand years after Christ's Passion).

An example of the so-called Romanticized representation of millenarian thought can be seen in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by a historian who in 1841,Charles Mackay:

An epidemic of terror of the end of the world has several times spread over the nations. The most remarkable was that which seized Christendom about the middle of the tenth century.The delusion appears to have been discouraged by the church [Peace of God Movement], but it nevertheless spread rapidly among the people. The scene of the last judgment was expected to be at Jerusalem. In the year 999, the number of pilgrims proceeding eastward, to await the coming of the Lord in that city, was so great that they were compared to a desolating army. Most of them sold their goods and possessions before they quitted Europe, and live upon the proceeds in the Holy Land. Buildings of every sort were suffered to fall into ruins. It was thought useless to repair them, when the end of the world was so near. Many noble edifices were deliberately pulled down. Even churches, usually so well maintained, shared the general neglect. Knights, citizens, and serfs, traveled eastwards in company, taking with them their wives and children, singing psalms as they went, and looking with fearful eyes upon the sky, which they expected each minute to open, to let the Son of God descend in his glory. During the thousandth year the number of pilgrims increased. Most of them were smitten with terror as with a plague. Every phenomenon of nature filled them with alarm. A thunderstorm sent them all upon their knees in mid-march. It was the opinion that thunder was the voice of God, announcing the day of judgment. Numbers expected the earth to open, and give up its dead at the sound. Every meteor in the sky seen at Jerusalem brought the whole Christian population into the streets to weep and pray. Fanatic preachers kept up the flame of terror. Every shooting star furnished occasion for a sermon, in which the sublimity of the approaching judgment was the principle topic.

However, many refute this, and other dramatic accounts like it, as fraudulent. Peter Stearns of Carnegie-Mellon University claims "there is no reason to expect that unusual attention was paid to the advent of a new millennium in the tenth century." He goes on to say the "myth" of the year 1000 was created by eighteenth century Enlightenment historians and then embellished by nineteenth century anti-Catholic writers.

However, even more recent investigations into the year 1000 contradict Stearn's conspiracy theory. Richard Landes, a medieval history professor at Boston University, has unearthed several relevant events which point to not only to the prevalence of millenarianistic thought around the year 1000, but to a period of such thinking stretching from 950 - 1033 AD, as the following list illustrates:

The Millenarian Period

c. 950:  The monk Adso writes his lengthy Letter on the Antichrist to Gerberga, sister of Otto I (German ruler from 936-973, who renewed the Western Empire). This letter was extensively copied and recopied, translated into other languages, and circulated throughout Europe. Adso declared that the Antichrist would rise when the rule of Frankish kings ended.

c. 950-980:  A letter about the Hungarians from the Bishop of Auxerre to the Bishop of Verdun "speaks of widespread apocalyptic reactions among the population."

964:  Carlulaire de Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes writes: "As the century passes, the end of the world approaches."

968:  Soldiers in Otto's army panic at an eclipse, which they see as a sign of the end.

987-991:  The Carolingian Dynasty ends, and with it, the rule of Frankish kings, which Adso had taught would be the sign of the Antichrist's arrival.

989:  Halley's comet appears in the sky and is seen by many as yet another sign of the coming apocalypse. Three years later (992), the aged Adso begins a one-way pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

990's:  Aelfric, the Abbot of Eynhsham, delivers numerous sermons filled with apocalyptic imagery, references to the Last Judgment, the unleashing of the Antichrist, and time links pointing to the year 1000.

993:  Ralph Glaber (tenth century historian) claims that Mount Vesuvius "gaped far more often that his wont and belched forth a multitude of vast stones mingles with sulfurous flames which fell even to a distance of three miles around."

994/996:  Abbo of Fleury (945-1054), an influential French abbot, in his Apologetic Work, relates: "When I was a young man, I heard a sermon about the end of the world preached before people in the cathedral of Paris. According to this, as soon as the number of a thousand years was completed, the Antichrist would come and the Last Judgment would follow in a brief time. I opposed this sermon with what force I could from the passages in the Gospels, the Apocalypse and the Book of Daniel."

****The year 1000 passes  -  but no apocalypse.  Many people quickly redirect their apocalyptic hopes to the year 1033, which was also preceded by several widespread speculations regarding the Last Judgment.****

1005-1006:  Several texts suggest that a terrible famine raging throughout Europe is a sign of the coming apocalypse. In France, scarcity of food leads to cannibalism.

1009:  El Hakim destroys the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem - another apocalyptic sign in many people's views.

1012-1014:  Numerous natural disasters of significant proportions lead some people to believe that the world was "returning to its original chaos."

1026-1027:  Richard of St. Vaast leads a large pilgrimage to Jerusalem, possibly in connection to beliefs that the year 1033 will bring the end of the world.

1033:  Another mass pilgrimage is made to Jerusalem.

For further information on the events concerning apocalyptic and millennial expectations around the year 1000 CE see Apocalyptic Expectations Around the Year 1000 by Richard Landes.

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